After winning AAC championship, No. 1 UConn ready for the NCAA tournament

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – The crowning of the Connecticut Huskies as the American Athletic Conference champions, beating South Florida 84-70, was the expected outcome of the league tournament Monday night. But the Bulls proved that they will be a difficult team to face in the NCAA tournament.

No. 1 UConn (22-10, 11-7 American) was ferocious in attacking the boards, outrebounding USF 47-20 overall, and used 18 offensive rebounds to rack up 50 points in the paint, 20 of them on second chances. The Huskies scored early and often at the start of the game, opening a lead as large as 27 points with a minute to go in the first half.

USF turned things around in the second half, however, using their guards to attack the rim and spot up for three-pointers as they outscored Connecticut 47-38, the second time this season they outscored the Huskies in a half, and only the third time it’s been done to UConn this season.

“We’re fourth in the country in defensive rebounds per game and that was uncharacteristic for us,” said USF coach Jose Fernandez. “I thought UConn did a great job on the glass. That was the difference.”

UConn senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, voted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, led the Huskies with 23 points, adding six assists and six rebounds. Uncharacteristically, the sharp shooting Mosqueda-Lewis only hit one three-pointer en route to her 23 points, which pleased her coach a great deal.

“K had 23 points and only made one, three,” UConn’s Geno Auriemma said afterwards. “Usually when K scores a lot of points it’s four or five three’s and not as many others. I thought today she made herself hard to guard because she was scoring from all over the court, not just beyond the three-point line.”

Both UConn forwards, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck contributed double-doubles, Stewart with 22 points and 12 rebounds and Tuck with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Both earned All-Tournament team honors, along with teammate Moriah Jefferson (14 points, five assists).

For Tuck, this is just another step towards reclaiming the time she lost last season with knee issues that led to her being red-shirted.

“It feels great to be out there on the court; it sucked last year sitting and watching,” she explained. “I’m just glad to be out there with my teammates and doing everything I can to help us win.”

USF, to their credit, played very well, attacking throughout, and were it not for a couple of stretches, the outcome could have been different.

“UConn is very, very good,” said Fernandez. “They make the most out of every possession. They make the most out of every trip.”

Behind junior guards Shaleth Stringfield and Courtney Williams, an All-Tournament selection, the Bulls pushed the ball and attacked defensively. They shot 53 percent for the second half, and went to the foul line a dozen times, missing only one.

“We went into the locker room at halftime and got ourselves together and said ‘look we have to get ourselves back in this game,” said Williams. “So I think we went out and tried our best to do that.”

The duo was joined in double figures by Alisia Jenkins, the final All-Tournament selection, with 10 points, after scoring over 20 in both of the Bulls’ earlier tournament victories, and Tamara Taylor, the lone senior in the regular USF rotation. Although young, South Florida was not in awe of their opponent and ready to take them on.

“It starts in the locker room,” according to Fernandez. “You’ve got to win in the locker room before you win on the court. I think it’s a credit to their character and the culture that we have in the program. I think sometimes a team takes a personality of the head coach and the staff and I think I’ve always been a fighter my whole life. We have a lot of fighters in that locker room that play with energy and intensity and with a lot of desire. It’s great to come in and coach kids with passion. Those are the type of kids that we recruit.”

As for the champions, Auriemma said that the increased intensity and performance of his teams as March and tournament time roll around never surprises him.

“There is a different vibe on our team come March,” according to Auriemma. “We go about things a little bit differently than we do during the regular season. There is a certain excitement that maybe isn’t there in February because it’s been a long season, but when it’s time to play in the conference championship or for the national championship in the NCAA Tournament, if you stay the same as you were during the regular season, you’re not going anywhere. You can’t stay the same. You can’t stay the same mentally, emotionally, physically. You gotta change.”

“But I also know if our four starters (Stewart, Mosqueda-Lewis, Tuck and Jefferson) play like they did this weekend and like they did in the big games, like we played this year,” he added, “we’re going to be hard to beat, really hard to beat.”

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